How France’s conservatives are using the plight of Afghan women to attack feminists

A French soldier checks a woman's temperature as people wait in a reunion and evacuation center at the French military air base 104 of Al Dhafra, near Abu Dhabi, on Aug. 23, after being evacuated from Kabul. (Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images)
A French soldier checks a woman's temperature as people wait in a reunion and evacuation center at the French military air base 104 of Al Dhafra, near Abu Dhabi, on Aug. 23, after being evacuated from Kabul. (Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images)

“We must plan and protect ourselves against large irregular migratory flows that endanger those who are part of them and fuel trafficking of every kind,” said French President Emmanuel Macron in a speech last week after the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. His comments sparked outrage in France. To many, especially on the left, this framing — which criminalizes refugees facing atrocities and presents their entry as a potential threat — suggested a “shocking” lack of empathy. The hashtag #EmmanuelLePen, in reference to French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, trended on Twitter.

A lot has been said, and will continue to be said, about this response to the crisis. But there is another concerning trend in French discourse on Afghanistan: the exploitation of the plight of Afghan women to attack French feminists and distract from the issues at hand.

In his speech, after saying that “the Afghan people have the right to live in security, with respect for all,” Macron added a special mention of “Afghan women,” saying that they “have the right to live in freedom and dignity.” As Afghans face the severe consequences of a Taliban regime that is violently jeopardizing their basic human rights and safety, women are particularly threatened. Female politicians have received death threats for expressing concerns about the political changes, female journalists are no longer able to do their jobs and, more generally, women who dare to speak, study or work are put on blacklists that endanger them. These brutal changes affect not only those who belong to the elite, but also any unmarried woman or girl who might be forced into marriage to a member of the Taliban, an act that institutionalizes sexual violence.

Such a tragedy should compel solidarity and pose questions for us, as citizens of countries that have spent decades in Afghanistan for a result that is now endangering millions of lives.

But many of those in France who raised their voices supposedly for Afghan women do not seem to be sincerely motivated by these concerns. Instead, several public figures, particularly conservatives, have accused intersectional and decolonial feminists of remaining silent regarding the situation faced by Afghan women.

As historian Eric Anceau urged “all feminists” to “speak out against the planned erasure of 20 million Afghan women,” journalist Alexandre Devecchio expressed concerns about the “deafening silence” of “neofeminists.” Journalist Brice Couturier tweeted a picture of empty streets in Paris (as it is usually the case in August) to illustrate his sarcastic words: “Afghan women, fallen back under the control of Taliban Islamists, say thanks to intersectional feminists for the great demonstration of solidarity organized in Paris.”

An entire op-ed published by Le Journal du Dimanche was dedicated to criticizing those who, the writer claimed, would rather condemn the “domination of white cisgender males over 50” and “colonialism” rather than the obvious sexism of the Taliban. The article accused “some” of being “pleased by the arrival of the Taliban and of their radical Islam,” without any source backing that outrageous claim.

Yet after Macron’s speech, the organization Pourvoir Feministe, which positions itself through an intersectional lens “against ableism, racism, LGBTphobia, fatphobia,” said it was disappointed by the lack of commitment from the president on migration policy and started a petition now signed by almost 100,000 people to push for the welcoming of refugees. Several other feminist organizations demanded emergency measures from the government. Prominent figures, including feminists who support an intersectional approach, launched another petition to welcome women and their relatives. These initiatives show how much concern and solidarity there is among French women from various backgrounds.

Accusing women of playing any part in a situation created by men is the kind of surreal move that only patriarchy can achieve. Commenting on an atrocious situation without daring to express solidarity, while at the same time pointing fingers at women who have nothing to do with it and telling them what to do, is the most hypocritical way of pretending to care about the tragedy endured by our Afghan sisters. This is particularly true as many of the feminists being accused are women of color and LGBTQ women who have battled for equality and against discrimination in France.

This disaster must not be used as an opportunity to settle accounts and scrutinize minority women. Furthermore, as scholar Kaoutar Harchi reminds us, women do not leave their family structures; if they need to be supported due to the specific oppressions, so do their families who are also targeted by the Taliban.

In France, the best way to support Afghan women is to amplify the voices of Afghan women and to call out our government, which has not announced any precise information regarding the numbers of refugees who will be accepted.

And let us not forget how the fate of Afghan women has been weaponized to justify the invasion of Afghanistan and the following war. Using purported feminism as another tool for imperialism does not benefit them, but rather reinforces the structures of power that oppress all women across the globe.

Rokhaya Diallo is a French journalist, writer and filmmaker.

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